Ask any restaurateur from London to Copenhagen how their business has been changed and the answer is likely to be a variation of “permanently” or “irreperably”.
Out of all restaurant sectors, it’s the fine-dining scene that is likely to be most altered, and there are aspects of it – multi-course tasting menus for example – that may be gone for ever. Indeed, some restaurants may never return: Daniel Humm, chef-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park told Bloomberg “there is definitely a question mark over [the restaurant] – if it will reopen.”
That’s an extreme view: the main questions facing restaurateurs over the next few weeks, as many countries’ lockdowns are eased, is how they can re-open and in what form. While lockdown may be eased, social distancing will remain in place, so the first question is how can you run a service while keeping customers and staff two metres apart?
“Will it be normal? No,” Dominique Minchelli at the long-established Le Duc restaurant in Paris told Club Oenologique. “I will have half the number of tables, the menus will have to be on disposable paper and the waiters will wear masks and gloves. It will be really weird for at least a year.” As one commentator noted, dining in such conditions will call to mind the dental hygienist rather than an upscale restaurant.
At the ultra-fine dining level – the Michelin-starred level – the problems are multiplied. These restaurants are incredibly expensive to run, and – crucially – they depend on international diners.
“[International guests make up] 70–90 per cent in the warm months,” Magnus Ek of Oaxen Krog in Stockholm told Vanity Fair recently, adding that his bookings were down at least 80 per cent (in Sweden, restaurants have largely stayed open during the crisis). Many European top-end restaurateurs reckon on at least 70 per cent international clientele. Even those like Copenhagen’s Geist, whose owner Bo Bech is resolutely anti-elitist, has “around 35 per cent food tourists”, he told Club Oenologique. This is a customer base that has disappeared for the foreseeable future – “it’s going to be brutal,” he added.
Some reckon it will be at least 18 months until anything approaching normal air travel resumes. “No one is going to get on a plane just to go to a restaurant,” says restaurant critic Andy Hayler, who has eaten in every three-star Michelin in the world. “You’d be nuts. Quite apart from the risk of catching the virus, there’s also the danger of being caught in a sudden second-wave lockdown, as happened in Hokkaido recently.”
What is clear is that the fine dining scene, however it resumes, will be radically changed. As “gastro-tourism” dries up, restaurants will cater for a far more local clientele. This is already happening in countries where lockdown rules were less severe and restaurants stayed open, and chefs report more bookings from local residents, who prefer less elaborate menus.
“I think the lesson that this confinement has taught us is that we don’t need complicated, elaborate food to eat well. Food will be more straightforward and more simple with a focus on great local ingredients,” Club Oenologique food writer Aiste Miseviciute said.
This is a common theme of dozens of industry insiders. “Destination dining, the kind of place where you worship at the altar [of a celebrity chef] will certainly be challenged,” John Ragan, wine director of Union Square Hospitality Group, which runs 18 restaurants across the US, said in a seminar last week.
Instead, Ragan said, diners will look for “hubs and meeting places – that’s what we’re dreaming of in lockdown, somewhere you can feel at home, break down the walls and feel connectivity – not the kind of place where you have to make a reservation a year in advance.”
While there will be closures, and consolidation, and many job losses, it’s not hard to find professionals who welcome the demise of gastro-tourism. London, for example, has become “bloated” with Michelin-starred restaurants, according to Mikael Jonsson, who closed his (one Michelin star) restaurant Hedone last year. “There are too many restaurants in London – it needed a clean-up.”
Veteran restaurateur Giuliano Lotto, whose London portfolio includes Latteria, Il Baretto and La Petite Maison, told Club Oenologique, “it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There will be a re-imagining of the whole scene, not just restaurants but our entire lifestyle.”
In Paris, Minchelli echoed Jonsson’s words: “there are too many restaurants. There will still be room for fine dining, but it will be local, which is good. People had become more interested in what is on the other side of the planet instead of next door – now we can rediscover what’s around us, without getting on a plane.”